The cautious person scratches his chin, nods and says nothing for a moment.
Then he or she says something vague yet wise, beginning with, "Yes, yes ... however--" and ending with a nod to time as the ultimate judge of whether, in this case, it's a good idea to build a slender, swirling skyscraper in Chicago's front yard.
But we don't live in cautious, vague times. We live in declarative times--the era of yes/no, it stinks/it's great--in which hard snap judgments shoulder equivocations into the ditch.
Quickly, now! Do you love the Fordham Spire, the 115-story salute to the Dairy Queen proposed this week for a plot of land near the entrance to Navy Pier? Or do you hate it?
If built, will it be a bold, captivating structure that's the pride and symbol of Chicago for decades? Or a mistake by the lake to make us forget all about the new Soldier Field and cringe every time we pass the souvenir postcard racks?
Well, it's hard not to hesitate when it comes to architecture.
First, there's the protective cynicism most of us laypeople feel when confronted with an art form we haven't really studied and don't really understand. Our minds fretfully turn to the old folk tale "The Emperor's New Clothes." We may think we like it, but at the same time we fear that our vanity is allowing us to be played for fools, just like the characters who believed that the Emperor's suit was made of fabric invisible to stupid people.
Gad, what if renowned architect Santiago Calatrava drew up Fordham Spire to win a bar bet?
"I will suggest a big, shiny, inverted screw as North America's tallest building, and those poor, striving Chicagoans, they will hail me as a genius!"
"You've had too many, Santiago!"
But then our protective humility kicks in. We sure don't want to sound like the bumpkins who mocked the installation of the untitled Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza in 1967 and demanded instead a statue of Ernie Banks, or the blinkered sidewalk critics who slammed the John Hancock Center as it rose several years later.
It's so easy to be wrong in the moment.
In the 1980s, Bill Henderson and Andre Bernard published two volumes titled "Rotten Reviews," collections of comically harsh contemporaneous assessments of books we now recognize as masterpieces.
One critic scorned "Catch 22" as an "emotional hodgepodge." Another consigned "The Great Gatsby" to "the class of negligible novels." "Alice in Wonderland"? "A stiff overwrought story." "Ulysses"? "Brackish, pretentious and underbred."
A Tribune review cited in "Rotten Reviews" dismissed Nelson Algren's "Chicago: City on the Make" as "a book unlikely to please anyone but masochists--definitely a highly scented object."
But when you're wrong about a book, movie, song or the like, the sentiment passes. I seem to be one of the few people who considered "Angels in America," the Tony Kushner play-turned-HBO series, a pretentious mess. But at least I'm not reminded of it by seeing a huge replica of the DVD box on the horizon every time I turn onto Lake Shore Drive.
My off-the-cuff assessment of the Fordham Spire is that at half the size, tucked somewhere downtown, it would be remarkable and kind of cool. But looming at our water's edge, it would be grotesque and garish, the architectural equivalent of the class clown who dances in front of everyone during the taking of the group picture.
These words are destined to haunt me if for no other reason than that bad buildings, like bad haircuts and bad eyeglasses, seem to progress naturally in the eye of the beholder from dismay to acceptance to affection.
In the end, it takes too much energy to hate an architectural landmark. Is there anyone out there who even bothers anymore to sneer at the once-reviled twin corncobs of Marina City or the igloo on steroids we now call the Thompson Center?
I can't even get a snit going anymore about Soldier Field, a project I enthusiastically joined in trashing.
I believe time will be its ultimate judge. Yes, yes.